Jori Lehtera

Flyers fail to get revenge as offense quiet in loss to Predators

Flyers fail to get revenge as offense quiet in loss to Predators

BOX SCORE

No questionable penalty calls. No need to use a challenge. No last-minute heartbreak this time.

A furious nature was replaced with frustration after the Predators scored the lone goal at the Wells Fargo Center to beat the Flyers, 1-0, Thursday night (see observations).

Predators third-line center Colton Sissons, who missed the first meeting between the two teams nine days ago, connected on the only goal of the game 3:49 into the third period as he blasted a shot that beat Michal Neuvirth to the far post (see highlights).

“I’ve got to watch the replay to see if I was on the right angle, but it’s a tough play 2-on-1,” Neuvirth said. “Usually when it’s a tight game like that, it’s about one mistake and you've got to move on.”

The Flyers appeared to have the play covered. However, when Kevin Fiala took control of the loose puck, Wayne Simmonds reached for it and that kick-started the Predators’ rush for what ultimately proved to be the game-winning goal.

“It’s a tough play,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “You see the puck and you want to go get that loose puck. It’s a 0-0 game. It was a real good play on the cycle, and there’s scrum on the hash marks there. It’s a tough play and, unfortunately, the puck got past Simmer and now it’s a race back up ice and they got a pretty good quality shot away.”

For a high-octane offensive team ranked second in goals scored, the Flyers are still looking to prove they can win the tight-checking, low-scoring games.

Overall, it was also a tough night for the Flyers' leading scorer Simmonds. He was dealing with a lower-body injury, and at times, appeared to be laboring on the ice. Simmonds also took a stick to his lip that required stitches, which essentially excused him from making any postgame comments.

The 1-0 loss marked the second time in the first seven games the Flyers have been shut out this season, and on both occasions Neuvirth has been the victim of the lack of offense.

“It’s tough to say,” Neuvirth said. “We had really good chances, but we couldn’t get one behind him. It was frustrating to see that, but we've got to move on and we've got another big game on Saturday.”

Once again, the Flyers could have been bailed out by their power play. However, the two units collectively finished 0 for 5 for the third time this season. That’s because 6-foot-5 Pekka Rinne, who’s mobile for his size with one of the best glove hands in the league, stopped all 28 shots.

“That was a lot of battle,” Rinne said. “I was able to see the puck for the most part and make the first save always and a lot of times guys were bailing me out, too.”

Outside the Wells Fargo Center earlier on Thursday, the Flyers organization unveiled a nine-foot statue of founder and chairman Ed Snider prior to faceoff with almost every member of the team’s Hall of Fame in attendance (see story).

Unfortunately for the club, it was the only moment worth celebrating.

Notes, quotes and tidbits
• Filling in for the injured Jordan Weal (upper body), forward Jori Lehtera saw his first action of the season. He played on a line with Valtteri Filppula and Simmonds. Lehtera played 12:06 and finished the game without a shot on net. If Weal is unable to go Saturday afternoon, it will be interesting to see if Hakstol goes back to Lehtera or gives the quicker Matt Read a shot against a speedy Oilers team.

“Lehts did a good job,” Hakstol said. “To step in in game No. 7, not having played, I thought Lehts went out and played a real rock solid game. Lehts has been here. Lehts has done the work. You guys don’t see behind the scenes the kind of effort and what that takes as a teammate every day to stay ready.”

• The 1-0 loss comes exactly 50 years to the day the Flyers beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, 1-0, in their first-ever home game at The Spectrum. The last time the Flyers were shut out 1-0 on home ice was March 31, 2011, by the Atlanta Thrashers.

• Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere played a career-high 25:23. Not only has he regained his offensive form from his rookie season, but he’s also refined his defensive game by using more body and less stick to gain position on his man. 

Buried by Flyers' depth, Jori Lehtera may soon finally crack lineup

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Buried by Flyers' depth, Jori Lehtera may soon finally crack lineup

On the first day he was officially a member of the Flyers, Jori Lehtera was literally pumped. So much so, the weight room warrior hit the gym that morning and slapped on a few extra plates on each side of the barbell.

“My wife woke me up and said, ‘Do you know we’re going to Philadelphia?’” Lehtera said Sept. 11, after the first day he skated with his new teammates in Voorhees, New Jersey.

"I said, 'That's good.' I went to the gym and had a little bit bigger weights than normal. It was good. I needed some change because my game wasn't that good there."

Lehtera was acquired by the Flyers from the Blues at the 2017 NHL draft in the Brayden Schenn trade. In the span of one year, Lehtera’s status has plunged from a top-line center on a playoff team to the 13th forward on a non-playoff team.

That’s not to say the Flyers have failed to recognize Lehtera’s skill set and utilize him effectively, he just didn’t show enough in the preseason to warrant playing time.

The fourth-highest paid forward on the Flyers’ roster has started the first six games of the season as a healthy scratch. Dave Hakstol has opted for the speedier Dale Weise, who’s earning roughly half of Lehtera, who has a $4.7 million cap hit for the next two seasons.

Lehtera's opportunity could come as early as Thursday against the Predators. Wayne Simmonds left Tuesday's game for precautionary reasons with a lower-body injury.

If Simmonds can't go — the Flyers will have an update on Simmonds Thursday — Lehtera is the next guy up as Hakstol would have to shuffle his lines.

“I’m still excited,” Lehtera said recently. “Camp wasn’t good. I wouldn’t say terrible, it was OK. I’m kind of still looking to find my spot. When I get my opportunity, I’m going to take my spot. Where it is, I don’t know.”

Lehtera bolted St. Louis, the city he spent his first NHL seasons, in a cloud of dust. His "Spirit of St. Louis" was completely sucked dry during his time there, as he finished the 2016-17 season with just seven goals and 22 points in 64 games.

“The whole season was a struggle,” Lehtera said. “I just couldn’t get everything out of myself. It wasn’t just a couple of things. It was a lot of big things, and a lot of small things together.”

Playing for Ken Hitchcock, who just passed Al Arbour for third on the NHL’s all-time wins list, has a way of wearing down a player’s psyche.

According to Hitchcock, who rejoined the Dallas Stars this summer after he was fired by the Blues back in February, Lehtera’s struggles were partly a result of centering the team’s top line with superstar winger Vladimir Tarasenko.

“First couple of years there was no attention being paid [to Lehtera]," Hitchcock said in the summer, "and last year, there was a lot of attention of being paid. He lost his confidence because he was in and out of the lineup, so the line wasn’t that effective. The line got special attention for the first time. Because of the way our lineup was built, we were really able to take advantage of matchups.”

Lehtera and Tarasenko developed a lethal chemistry as teammates for Novosibirsk in the KHL, but it didn’t translate to the smaller NHL rink, where time and space to operate with the puck are at a premium. Tarasenko’s reputation quickly earned the attention of the NHL opposition and its top defensive players.

“You saw that chemistry right away,” said Brian Elliott, a teammate of Lehtera’s for two seasons in St. Louis. “They were a dynamic duo and then they were split up, and I think he was looking for that guy to pass to and things like that.”

Compounding Lehtera’s struggles was a concussion he suffered that knocked him out of the lineup for several weeks in February. Once Lehtera returned, he was never quite the same, as he struggled with the speed of the game.

“We played him at wing after he came back from being injured, but his natural position is at center, and that’s where he played his best hockey,” Hitchcock said. “He’s a guy strong on the puck, good down-low player, he protects the puck well.” 

Interestingly for a guy listed at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds and lacking quickness, Lehtera would appear to be more suited at the wing position.

And the potential opportunity Thursday alone may have Lehtera pounding out a few more extra reps in the gym.

Nolan Patrick doesn't look out of place in Flyers' preseason OT loss to Islanders

Nolan Patrick doesn't look out of place in Flyers' preseason OT loss to Islanders

BOX SCORE

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — It certainly didn't have the feel of the first preseason game of the season on a Sunday afternoon when many sports fans are glued to a TV watching the NFL.

But a sellout crowd of 13,917 poured into the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum to watch the first hockey game in the former home of the Islanders for the first time since April 2015, and the Isles treated this exhibition as if it had some sentimental emotions.

Fans lined the parking lot of the newly-renovated arena tailgating a good two to three hours leading up to faceoff.     

"Didn't think energy was an issue," Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. "Pretty good pace to this game. I think probably the atmosphere had something to do with that.

"It was a great atmosphere. It was competitive all the way through. It's tough to lose in overtime. Performance wise and effort wise were good."

Islanders captain John Tavares ended the game just 34 seconds into overtime to give New York a 3-2 win over the Flyers with his second goal (see observations). Tavares beat Flyers goalie Leland Irving, who signed an AHL contract with the team last month.

Hakstol anticipated that tired legs would be an issue after two hard days to open training camp that included a lot of skating and some intense board battles during drills.

"They did what we asked," Hakstol said. "Go out and play to your strengths, play within themselves and do the things that they do best. Playing with poise and confidence and making plays."

Unlike Hakstol, who utilized a prospect-heavy group, Islanders head coach Doug Weight elected to use a more veteran-heavy presence in his lineup that included Tavares, newcomer Jordan Eberle, Josh Bailey, Anders Lee, Nick Leddy and former Flyer Dennis Seidenberg.

Irving took over for Alex Lyon in the third and faced a pair of point-blank opportunities in the opening minute from Tavares, who then won it in OT.

"Yeah, it's tough," Irving said with a laugh. "Tough going into the third. Sometimes those situations happen too, so you just have to be ready and prepare yourself for that situation.

"He obviously has some great finish. I knew who had the puck so it was just trying to be patient, follow him across, but he made a good shot right above the pad and below the blocker. When it goes post and in, you just tip your cap to him.

"You did what you had to do."

Hakstol couldn't have drawn up a better game situation to test the youth of his team after the Islanders erased a 2-0 deficit at the 14:37 mark of the third period.

"You could feel it in the legs today that you had two days of hard practices," defenseman Robert Hagg said. "At the same time you need to find a way to get around it, play a solid game and that's what I tried to focus on."

The natural Patrick
Playing in his first NHL game, second overall pick Nolan Patrick definitely didn't look out of place. There is a relative ease to his game, where he knows precisely where to be on the ice and exudes a calmness and confidence that rarely accompanies a rookie his age.

Patrick, who turns 19 on Tuesday, was teamed up on a line with Oskar Lindblom and Travis Konecny. That trio had not worked at all together prior to Sunday's preseason game.

"Yeah, he's a good player," Patrick said of Lindblom. "He protects the puck well. He's got a good shot. I think I'll be more of a pass-first guy, so I can find him as much as I can. Obviously, they had a pretty good lineup over there. I thought I played OK.

"I know I can still be better. Obviously, a little bit of nerves going into that first one."

Prospect watch
It's just the first preseason game, but Sam Morin and Hagg may have gained some separation from the other defensive prospects by turning in steady performances. Coming off a rookie game where he played in big chunks of minutes, Travis Sanheim had a bad turnover trying to bank a pass off the boards behind the Flyers' net that led to an uncontested shot on Lyon, and Mathew Barzal blew past Sanheim in the right circle before scoring the game-tying goal.

Phillipe Myers had some minor miscues, but the one that led to Tavares' overtime-winner certainly stood out. Part of constructing the roster for Sunday's game was to see how the four main defensive prospects would play together and handle the pressure and tempo of an NHL game.

"We certainly wanted to have those young guys in this game," Hakstol said. "It probably won't be the last game that we see them in. We tried to get them all within their roles, and I thought, for the most part, there was a lot of positive performances there.

"Obviously, there's a lot of learning experiences there as well, but there were some good positives."

Who can wing it?
General manager Ron Hextall is a firm believer that playmaking centers with good hockey IQ can make the transition from center to wing. Two players were called upon to make that transition Sunday.

Jori Lehtera manned the left side with Mikhail Vorobyev in the middle, and rookie Mike Vecchione lined up at right wing for the first time in roughly five years after playing center in his four seasons at Union College, where he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker award as college hockey's top performers last season.

Vecchione didn’t back down from the challenge, showing a real toughness in battling for the puck along the boards.

“It’s a bit of an adjustment. I’d been working at it all week,” Vecchione said. “I played in high school and through junior and then I switched to center in college, where they needed me to play center. I have a fairly good background at right wing. It’s a little bit of a learning experience too. I’m just trying to adjust as best I can.”

Lehtera has played wing in international competition, but this will be the first time he’s played the position significantly on the smaller NHL ice where there’s more of a premium on winning individual board battles. Lehtera passed the first test with a shorthanded goal to go along with an assist.

“I played there in Olympics, World Cup and World Championships, so it’s not weird,” Lehtera said. ”I don’t think it matters if you have a good centerman it doesn’t matter if you’re a winger. It was a good first start.”